New L.A. ownership can't dodge turmoil


June 07, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- The baseball world has turned upside down. The New York Yankees are now the quiet, professional team that has gained the grudging respect of everyone looking up at them in the standings. The Los Angeles Dodgers -- who used to fit that description right down to their matching T-shirts -- have undergone a personality change so profound, they might as well switch to pinstripes.

New ownership has brought a strange new direction to one of baseball's most staid franchises. How else to explain the three weeks of turmoil that began with the blockbuster Mike Piazza deal and did not subside even after general manager Fred Claire designated disgruntled Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo for assignment and pulled out of the Randy Johnson sweepstakes?

The Dodgers are owned by Rupert Murdoch -- the tabloid king. What exactly did you expect?

No sooner had Claire cleared the air on Tuesday than another set of headlines turned Dodger Stadium into a media magnet. The New York Post reported in Wednesday's editions that Claire and manager Bill Russell would be fired at the end of the 1998 season and replaced by Florida Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland.

It was a fishy story, of course. The same rumor had been floated in Chicago about Cubs GM Ed Lynch and manager Jim Riggleman just a few weeks before, and sharply denied by Cubs president Andy MacPhail, but this one still resonated in Southern California. And why not?

The New York Post is owned by -- who else? -- Murdoch, raising immediate suspicion that the story was a trial balloon, floated to test the public reaction to a front-office shake-up in L.A. That's a stretch, but Claire had little choice other than to address the situation before Wednesday night's game.

"We're trying to get things settled down, so this is not beneficial," Claire said. "Bob [Graziano, club president] talked to me after the story came out to tell me it was not true, and I know he also talked to Bill."

Fox spokesman Vince Wladika also denied the report, attributing it to continued speculation in Florida about the deconstruction of the Marlins.

That's probably true. If Fox Sports officials wanted to drop hints about the future of the club, they probably would not be so ham-fisted as to do it in a Fox-owned publication 2,500 miles away. There are plenty of news outlets in Los Angeles that would love to have leaked that story, including a Fox television affiliate.

Maybe a conspiracy-theory proponent might see some dark genius in doing it that way, but the Fox media conglomerate probably has better things to do than engage in that kind of petty button-pushing.

"Rupert Murdoch owns a lot of companies, and I don't think they are all in sync to the point where he would use one entity to talk about another," Graziano said.

Still, the issue of Russell's and Claire's job security figures to remain open throughout the season, especially if the Dodgers continue to play .500 baseball.

The Dodgers once were the most stable organization in baseball, employing only two managers over a period of 43 years, but the events of the past month have changed that perception dramatically.

"This is baseball in the 1990s," first baseman Eric Karros said. "This kind of thing never happened in the Dodgers organization. Nothing ever gets done out in the open. Now we are like everyone else."

Start spreading the news.

Nomo skepticism warranted

If anyone doubted that there has been a dramatic drop in the overall quality of major-league pitching the past few years, consider the level of interest in Nomo -- which even Claire characterized this week as surprising.

Nomo has a 2-7 record for a pretty good team, and scouts are saying that his fastball has dropped from 93 mph to 86, yet the Dodgers indicated that four teams made serious offers and several others expressed interest before a deal was consummated Thursday night with the New York Mets.

The Orioles pulled back when Dodgers officials were reluctant to make Nomo available for a physical examination. Desperate as the Orioles are for pitching help, they were right to proceed cautiously.

After the disastrous 1991 trade for Glenn Davis, incoming owner Peter Angelos made it a club policy that every new player undergo a physical examination as a pre-condition of any trade or free-agent signing. It's a good policy, and this was no time to make an exception.

Why the Mets?

The deal that sent Nomo to the Mets along with reliever Brad Clontz for swingman Dave Mlicki and reliever Greg McMichael was a mild surprise, considering Nomo's progressively higher ERA against National League competition the past three-plus seasons.

Most of the interest in him was believed to be from the American League, where he figured to enjoy a honeymoon period against a league full of hitters unfamiliar with his pitching style. Instead, he will be reunited with former Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, who has caught him throughout his American career.

Count him in

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